Edward Snowden adds his name to list of notable transit zone dwellers

Passengers stand in queue at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow early Thursday, June 27, 2013.
AP Photo/Sergei Grits

For the time being, Edward Snowden has no passport, no travel documents - and no home. The NSA leaker who faces espionage charges in the U.S. remains stuck in the transit zone of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport - at least, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

If he is indeed holed up there, Snowden's airport limbo is hardly unprecedented - and his terminal confinement is (so far) brief compared to the lengthy stays of those before him. And while Snowden's current predicament has largely to do with paperwork, his predecessors' long layovers were generally driven by politics.

The most famous - and lengthy - stay in an airport transit zone lasted 17 years. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who was kicked out of Iran in 1977 for protesting the Shah, ended up living nearly two decades in the departure lounge of Terminal One of Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris. Nasseri's ordeal inspired "The Terminal," the 2004 film starring Tom Hanks.

More recently, in 2009, Chinese human rights activist Feng Zhenghu spent three months of self-imposed exile at Narita International Airport in Japan. Feng, who blogged and tweeted regularly from his transit zone home, was repeatedly denied entry in his homeland - and he did not appreciate being compared to the Hanks film.

"I feel my life is a lot harder than the character's," Feng told CBS News at the time. "The movie is a romantic comedy, and my story is more of a tragedy."

In 2006, Iranian dissident Zahra Kamalfar fled her country after being jailed for attending a political rally. She ended up in Russia and stayed with her two children in Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport - where Snowden is currently in limbo - for nearly a year. She ultimately was granted asylum in Canada.

"Now I feel freedom," her daughter told reporters after landing in Vancouver. "I can again [see] a sky, moon, a sun, and I can take again oxygen."

Why do refugees and asylum seekers find themselves in transit zones? The promise of diplomatic neutrality.

Writes Max Fisher of the Washington Post: "It is defined as outside a given country's border so that travelers between flights can avoid the hassles of going through passport control and the state does not have to oversee their status during their layover."

Snowden's current home has long served as a haven for refugees. In 2010, the U.S. State Department human rights report cited 16 Somali asylum seekers at Sheremetyevo who "spent several months living in the airport's transit zone, at times compelled to beg for food from airline passengers."

Foreign Policy's Christian Caryl writes that in Sheremetyevo's transit lounge at Terminal F, it was a common sight to see Somali and Afghan refugees "sleeping on pieces of cardboard in secluded corners on that second floor, or washing up in the bathrooms."

That probably explains this 2012 review written by a traveler at the airport: "The second-floor gallery looks like a refugee camp."

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for